Dare County Gets Behind National Mental Health Initiative

July 22, 2015

By Neel Keller
Outer Banks Sentinel

Joining a growing effort to tackle what one official calls “a national crisis,” the Dare County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved a resolution on July 20 to reduce the number of inmates with mental illness in the county jail. The effort includes presenting a plan to achieve that goal at the commissioners’ first meeting in December.

The board’s action came only days after North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory’s July 14 announcement that he was creating the North Carolina Mental Health and Substance Use Task Force in support of the national “Stepping Up” initiative on mental illness and incarceration. The governor has called mental health problems and substance abuse a “disease [that is] hidden in our county jails in every single one of our counties.”

At the July 20 commissioners meeting, Chairman Bob Woodard said the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners (NCACC) had asked counties to adopt the resolution, which is an effort backed by the National Association of Counties, the National Sheriffs Association and the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

NCACC spokesman Todd McGee told the Sentinel that “our Board of Directors and membership have been concerned about the issue of people suffering from mental illness in county jails for many years, which is why they decided to encourage counties to adopt the resolution to participate in the program.”

And according to Brian Namey, communications director for the National Association of Counties, Dare County has now joined a growing list of participants in the initiative.

“Across the country more than 80 counties have passed similar resolutions, including four in North Carolina,” he said. “The counties are the first line of defense and service for a variety of community needs, including health care and law enforcement. We know from experience that jail is not the place for people with mental illness, and this initiative aims to connect people with mental illness with appropriate treatment in appropriate settings.”

The resolution approved by the Dare Board Commissioners cited some grim statistics about the scope of the problem. An estimated two million people with serious mental illnesses are booked into jails each year. Almost 13 percent of North Carolina’s prison population requires some type of intervention due to a mental health issue. Nearly three-quarters of adults with serious mental illnesses in jails have co-occurring substance use disorders and county jails present an unsafe environment for people with mental health treatment needs.

Citing some “big numbers”—$70 billion invested annually by counties for community health services and hospitals and another $70 billion spent on justice and public safety services, including more than $23 billion on correctional facilities—Namey said: “We’re working to provide information and resources to help counties…develop comprehensive plans and implement them in their communities.”

The National Association of Counties’ annual conference and exposition held earlier this month in Charlotte brought together nationally recognized experts who focused on the problem of mentally ill people winding up in jail or out on the street. And according to Namey, the NCACC annual conference to be held in Greenville next month will continue to focus attention on working collaboratively and effectively to address this “national crisis.”

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